I was recently browsing through Daniel S. Burt’s The Novel 100, a book featuring Burt’s own rankings of the 100 greatest novels of all time— if you want to see the list (and religious affiliation by author), click here. I picked up the book at a Barnes & Noble a while back for $5 or so.
Now, Burt is a literature professor who’s read far more than I have. And though I’m disappointed that Slaughterhouse-Five didn’t even make his honorable mention list of 100, Burt clearly knows his stuff. But after reading through the list, by year of publication, only 12 novels published in the 50 years prior to release of The Novel 100 (in 2004) made the cut. The most recent novel on the list was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, published in 1987. Not one novel published in the next 17 years made the list.
Meanwhile, in the 50 years prior to Lolita, starting back in 1904 … well, Burt’s list contains 37 novels published during that time. It’s reasonable to take this list as a microcosm of Burt’s opinion of the overall quality of novels during these time frames. So, the questions are … was writing really that much better then? How much worse is it now? Has a generation raised on many other forms of entertainment lost something in the way of the written word?
I think there’s much more to it than that. The old classics remaining at the top, on lofty perches, never to be knocked off … this is more than a trend in rankings of any type of creative art form. It is nearly law.
I think about this often. Burt is a well-informed man, but he’s just one man. In the world of film, let’s take a look at the most recent Sight & Sound Critics’ Top Ten Poll. Roger Ebert once wrote that the Sight & Sound poll — conducted every 10 years, and polling more than 100 of the world’s most respected film critics — is “by far the most respected of the countless polls of great movies.” The most recent poll, conducted in 2002, looks like this:
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
2. Vertigo (1958)
3. The Rules of the Game (1939)
4. The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974)
5. Tokyo Story (1953)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
7. Battleship Potemkin (1926) and Sunrise (1927)
9. 8 1/2 (1963)
10. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
I have no qualms with the quality of the list. A few of these films would make my own top 10 list, as well. But nothing released after 1974 made the cut — nothing in the following 28 years. And considering how new film is compared to literature, well, this list makes Burt’s list look like it’s skewing young. There’s also a Sight & Sound Directors’ Top Ten Poll from 2002. Its most recent film is 1980′s Raging Bull.
If literature is an old man, and film is a teenager, then rock ‘n’ roll is a baby. Surely, in the era of pop music — the sound of youth — there will be a willingness to embrace the more recent. Right? Well, no.
Rolling Stone‘s 2003 list, The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, features 74 albums from 1990-2003, 88 albums from the 1980s, 183 albums from the 1970s and 126 albums from the 1960s. The top 10 features only albums from the 60s and 70s. (The highest-ranking album released after 1979 is Nirvana’s Nevermind, clocking in at 17.)
How is this possible? Why are we not learning about these creative pursuits, and using our knowledge to advance them in some way? Maybe we are, but we just don’t notice it yet. Or maybe we’re too in awe of the great works of the past — too afraid that a vote for something newer is a put-down of a recognized classic.
Will anything ever be better than The Beatles? Or Citizen Kane? Or Don Quixote?
Does new art stand a chance of being properly recognized during its time? It’s tough, and getting tougher. Maybe time needs to pass before true greatness can be recognized. After all, Citizen Kane didn’t make the S&S poll until its second incarnation, in 1962. Though Kane was released in ’41, it didn’t crack the 1952 top 10 list. (Though 1945′s Brief Encounter did.)
Perhaps there’s a great fear of hyperbole out there, which is certainly understandable. Hyperbole makes it hard to take one seriously, but even the perception of hyperbole is enough to be dismissive.
Maybe the older generation has just seen, read and heard too much. If there’s nothing new under the sun, the older folks — the people with the ethos, and usually, the votes — can tell what’s truly worthwhile much quicker than we whippersnappers. And they don’t need to waste time on watered-down versions of the past. I buy that, to some extent. (Though some rose-colored glasses can get awfully fogged up over time. The vision ain’t what it used to be, Mildred.)
Maybe — and this may be the most likely explanation — most of these voters just like to play it safe. You know who doesn’t play it safe? The English music press. Witness this list from NME. And what happens? They’re criticized for being hyperbolic. Sometimes, it is hyperbole. Other times, it’s bravery. Or visionary.
Who cares? It’s all objective, anyway, right? Sure. But if you get into music, or books, or film, or sports, or anything else — if you really get into it enough to care — you’re going to want to find the best. And that’s when you’ll find these lists.
So who can claim that any recent creative work stands among the all-time greats without being laughed out of the room? Does it take the next generation to make this push? Probably. I do fear that the splintered music scene of the past decade — which I often see as a positive development — will make it harder for the new fans to learn about our generation’s great works somewhere down the line, but that shouldn’t be as much of a problem in film. Or books, as long as we keep reading them.
It’ll be up to us. But we’re just going to have to wait our turn.